Train Your Brain to Be Happy

By Elisha Goldstein, PhD

If you were sitting in a room and on the left hand in a cage you saw a growling lion and on the right hand side in a cage was a scenes of a beautiful beach, which would your brain be drawn to?

If you guessed the lion, you’re right. That is because we’ve been trained over thousands of years to focus on the negative at the expense of the positive. If our ancestors spent their days being mindful of the beautiful scenery while enjoying their lunch, odds are not too much later, they were lunch. They needed to practice focusing on where the danger was to survive. Centuries later we inherited this very well crafted brain that is more attracted to the negative than the positive. Since we aren’t often in physical danger today, how does this automatic negativity bias show up in our minds?

Here are 3 examples of some common “Mind Traps” that we frequently fall into that move us further away from happiness:

Catastrophizing: If you’re prone to stress and anxiety, you may recognize this habitual mind trap. This is where the mind interprets an event as the worst case scenario. If your heart is beating fast, you may think you’re having a heart attack. If your boss didn’t look at you while walking down the hall, you think you’re going to get fired. You get the picture. This style of thinking will support increased stress, anxiety, and even panic.

Discounting the positive and exaggerating the negative: The news is wonderful at supporting us with this one. This is where we habitually reject or minimize any positive feedback and magnify the negative feedback. The glass is always half empty. If you catch yourself saying something positive and then saying “but” followed by a negative, you are practicing this. “I got a 95 percent on this test, but I didn’t get a 100 percent.” Without awareness, this style of thinking will likely land you in a depressed mood.

Blaming: Be careful of this one. We all do it, pointing the finger at someone else for our woes or point the finger at ourselves for others woes. “If my boss wasn’t so hard on me at work, I wouldn’t be so anxious” or “It’s my fault my parents got divorced.” Just check in with yourself after noticing this style of thinking. It doesn’t cultivate any solutions and just makes you feel stuck, anxious, or depressed.

The question is how can we rebalance this automatic nature of our brains toward greater happiness?

There are some basic practices we can use to begin retraining our brain to get some space from these mind traps and refocus on what truly matters. We can change our brain to handle stress better, be more empathic, happier, less fearful, and even enhance our learning and memory. Learning theory teaches us that what we practice and repeat in life becomes automatic and neuroscience is proving that we can change the architecture of our brains by intentionally paying attention with greater mindfulness.

“See, Touch, Go” is a technique I talk about in my new book The Now Effect and it simply means when your mind wanders onto a mind trap for example, “see” where it wandered to, “touch” or notice the thought, and “gently go” back to the task at hand. Practicing “See, Touch, Go” with our common mind traps, will strip away any of the wasted attention on self-judgment or any other distracting thoughts and get you back to the task with greater focus, making you more productive and less stressed.

See, Touch, Go

The 3-minute video below is the first of 14 instructional videos that are woven throughout The Now Effect. I wanted to share the first one with you to give you an experience of “See, Touch, Go.” Give yourself a chance to practice it right now, then go ahead and bring it to the tasks at work, even your email.

(Note: The introduction in the video says, “thank you for buying The Now Effect” because the reader experiences this as the first video in the book.)

Come back to this to practice throughout the day and bring it informally to the tasks at home and work whenever you notice your mind wandering onto a mind trap or from what’s most important to pay attention to. You may even want to schedule a pop up in your calendar asking yourself “Where is my attention now?” When it pops up, take a breath and then answer the question. You may discover you were caught in a mind trap.

You may do this dance over and over again. The purpose isn’t to judge yourself if you’re distracted, but just become aware of it and gently refocus your attention. This mindful focus has been proven to help us become more flexible in our decision making, less stressed and happier at home and at work.

Try it out!

As always please share your thoughts, stories and questions. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

The preceding article is adapted from the new book The Now Effect by Elisha Goldstein and is reprinted with permission of Atria Books. © 2012 Elisha Goldstein, PhD

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., has a private practice in West Los Angeles. He is the coauthor of A Mindfulness‑Based Stress Reduction Workbook and author of the Mindfulness at Work™ program that is currently being taught in many multinational corporations. He is the founder of the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy column on and a frequent contributor on the Huffington Post and He lives in Santa Monica, California.


Elisa F.
Elisa F3 years ago

Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Leila Mota
Leila Mota5 years ago

I'll try this one. I know how difficult it is to change.

Dale Overall

Interesting but there are some circumstances where looking outside yourself can bring some intriguing answers to valid questions.
As for the beach and lion question my first reaction was to go to beach, sand, water...after a long winter the lion would be a second choice. Besides my Tortishell would put any lion to shame!

Patricia H.
Patricia H.5 years ago

great article

Abbe A.
Azaima A5 years ago

good reminder

Bonnie M.
Bonnie M5 years ago

Thank you. The video is very helpful. Breathing exercises are great- everyone should learn these. It helps one to focus.

Huber F.
Huber F5 years ago

I will use your way more..



Kiana S.
Kiana S5 years ago

Thanks for the article and the breathe exercise. I needed those reminders!

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H.5 years ago

thank you. good article. excellent reminders

Amber Beasley
Amber Beasley5 years ago